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Author: Patrick Kanouse

Disaster Adventure in Space: Coriolis’ The Last Voyage of the Ghazali

Disaster Adventure in Space: Coriolis’ The Last Voyage of the Ghazali

How does one present a science fiction roleplaying game to a group to introduce both the setting, the basic mechanics, and give a good flavor of how it will run yet extend beyond the typical rulebook starter adventure? Free League Publishing’s Coriolis is called “Arabian Nights in space,” and its tone and setting are evocative and fresh. Set far in the future in an area of space called the Third Horizon, humankind lives and thrives on a variety of planets and space stations. While many factions exist, one major divide is omnipresent: the Firstcomers and the Zenithians. The Firstcomers fled the Second Horizon, and after a decades-long war called the Portal Wars, were eventually cut off from that area of space. Meanwhile, centuries before the portals that allow travel among the stars were found, a generation ship called Zenith left Earth for the star called Kua. Once there, they found the Firstcomers.

With its Middle Eastern aesthetic, its religious undertones (a number of icons are revered — or not — among the population), and the Emissaries — mysterious entities who recently appeared and seem to be associated with the Icons — the game has more than the traditional Western culture-based science fiction setting many RPGs call home. Introducing a playing group to the game can be a challenge, and that’s where The Last Voyage of the Ghazali comes in.

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Exploring Degenesis Rebirth: Primal Punk

Exploring Degenesis Rebirth: Primal Punk

Degenesis Rebirth is an RPG that keeps calling me. It’s an ear worm of the imagination. The developer, SIXMOREVODKA, has launched a fabulous website that features an interactive map, timeline, stories, audio clips, and more. It is as rich and in-depth as the books themselves and also, like the digital copies of the game, all free. The world is so rich, in fact, that one struggles at times to deal with it all.

Degenesis Rebirth is a post post-apocalyptic game. In 2073, Earth was bombarded by a number of asteroids that was as close to an extinction event without quite doing the human species in. The people of this world call the event the Eshaton. For hundreds of years, humanity struggled with the new reality and sudden shifts in the world. The game focuses on Europe and North Africa, so we know that the plummet in temperatures set off another ice age. The drop in sea levels cut the Mediterranean off from the Atlantic. The Adriatic Sea between Italy and Croatia largely disappeared. The Sahara has bloomed with vegetation and life.

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The Psionic Masters: The Zhodani in Traveller

The Psionic Masters: The Zhodani in Traveller

When Traveller first released in 1977, it did not have an official setting. This quickly changed with the introduction of the Third Imperium, a large, multi-star system empire. While alien species like the Hivers, Droyne, Aslan, Vargr, and K’Kree — out of many — are prominent features in many Traveller campaigns, the fact is that the Imperium is human dominated. And the Imperium’s two major foes, the Solomani Confederation and the Zhodani Consulate, are human dominated.

Part of the setting’s lore is that the so-called Ancients took humans from Earth and seeded them throughout what is called Charted Space. Often, the humans have been altered radically for the environments. Cafadans, Darmine, Darrian, and others were either altered by the Ancients or adapted to their environments and managed to survive after the Ancients destroyed themselves in a cataclysmic war.

The Zhodani, however, occupy a special place in the Traveller setting. While transplanted by the Ancients, they discovered the faster-than-light jump drive on their own accord. More importantly, they are the only human society that incorporated psionics into their culture and government. This has had a profound effect on them and on the Imperial perception of them when the two civilizations clashed in the Spinward Marches, a designated area of space.

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Twilight: 2000‘s Polish Campaign: Part III

Twilight: 2000‘s Polish Campaign: Part III

The Black Madonna (GDW, 1985), part V of The Polish Campaign for Twilight: 2000

This is Part III of a detailed review of The Polish Campaign, a 6-part adventure sequence published by GDW in 1985 for their Twilight 2000 role playing game. The campaign covers Escape from Kalisz, The Free City of Krakow, Pirates of the Vistula, The Ruins of Warsaw, The Black Madonna, and Going Home. Part I, which looks at The Free City of Krakow and touches upon Escape from Kalisz, is here. Part II, which looks at Pirates of the Vistula and The Ruins of Warsaw, is here.

Twilight: 2000’s Polish campaign is iconic in the world of RPGs for providing supplements and adventures that fit its sandbox emphasis. Many RPGs rely on set adventures with expected scenes and outcomes, and many game masters (GMs) use those preset stories. While this is all well and good (nothing wrong with it), most GM plans do not survive contact with the players.

Sandbox games flip the script. What do the players want to do? The GM then reacts to this, often relying on random encounter tables. However, pure sandbox play can pose problems around ongoing interest. Humans like stories because they have beginnings, middles, and endings. The Polish campaign proved extraordinarily successful at negotiating the balance. The books are not pure adventure nor pure sourcebook.

The Black Madonna is, perhaps, the most famous supplement. So popular is it that Free League added a revision by the original author, Frank Frey, as a Kickstarter digital stretch goal for their forthcoming edition of Twilight: 2000It is interestingly within the campaign the one that seems “out of sequence.” The previous supplements, Pirates of the Vistula and The Ruins of Warsaw, provided numerous incentives to the players to make their way from Krakow to Warsaw. The Black Madonna’s primary area of operations is northwest of Krakow and in Silesia.

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Twilight: 2000‘s Polish Campaign, Part II

Twilight: 2000‘s Polish Campaign, Part II

Pirates of the Vistula (GDW, 1985), part 3 of The Polish Campaign for Twilight: 2000

This is Part II of a detailed review of The Polish Campaign, a 6-part adventure sequence published by GDW in 1985 for their Twilight 2000 role playing game. The campaign covers Escape from Kalisz, The Free City of Krakow, Pirates of the Vistula, The Ruins of Warsaw, The Black Madonna, and Going Home. Part I, which looks at The Free City of Krakow and touches upon Escape from Kalisz, is here.

As I re-read Twilight: 2000‘s Polish Campaign, the set of adventure supplements that take place in the immediate aftermath of what starts the players on their adventures in the desolated landscape of World War III and Poland, I’m struck by how much world-building and detail the writers put into the world. For the Polish campaign is a rich sandbox for players and game masters (GM) to play around in. Encounters, towns, villages, NPCs, and mysteries galore fill the pages of Pirates of Vistula and The Ruins of Warsaw, parts 3 and 4 of the Polish Campaign.

The players, surviving US soldiers of the US 5th Mechanized Infantry Division, will have fought their way to safety, escaping the Soviet armies that crushed them. If they made their way from Kalisz to Krakow in the core rulebook’s opening scenario, Escape from Kalisz, they probably found some respite and have managed to resupply to a degree. They may have even made some friends. The overall, presumed player motive in Twilight: 2000 is that they want to return home, that Poland is but a stop over. Now, this could change, and it may not even be the case initially depending on the players. Nonetheless, the players need to find a way to survive in this aftermath of a world collapsing from the creeping nuclear holocaust. 

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Twilight: 2000‘s Polish Campaign, Part I

Twilight: 2000‘s Polish Campaign, Part I

Twilight: 2000 takes place in the aftermath of a limited tactical nuclear war during World War III. While the inciting event is over (the use of nuclear weapons), the world is still very much in collapse, so the players are engaged in a game of survival. They are what is left of the US 5th Mechanized Infantry Division, crushed by two Soviet divisions in Poland in the spring of 2000.

The game is one of the few true sandbox games that I have ever encountered. While my Traveller games often had sandbox elements, they were still typically guided by a grand narrative. Twilight: 2000 forgoes even that, for the most part. Casting the players in the roll of trying to make their way in the world. The operating presumption is that they want to return home — aka, the United States. 

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Tales of an Indie Game Designer — After: The Machines

Tales of an Indie Game Designer — After: The Machines

One day a few years ago, my brother casually mentioned how he thought it would be fun to create our own RPG game. After a bit of conversation, I understood this was not an off the cuff remark and found myself excited about the prospect. We had a number of conversations about it. Would we use an existing rule set or setting that allowed others to write content into, or would we create our very own?

We decided to build our own. Neither of us had built a game from scratch, but we have played a lot over the years. I had also house-ruled any number of decisions. For those that do not know, house-ruling in RPGs is when the game master (GM) determines a rule on the fly or establishes a rule for their game that either contravenes or is not covered by the rules themself. This is a common activity for GMs because RPGs cannot cover every single thing a player may want to do.

My brother and I bounced a few ideas around, particularly setting. What kind of game did we want? Without knowing it, we stumbled our way through answering a number of questions in the Power 19. In the early 2000s, among the indie RPG movement, a number of names in that space interacted on The Forge. Folks in the indie RPG game community — for example, Ron Edwards the creator of Sorcerer — discussed game design.

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Surviving the Sci-Fi Horror of Mothership, Maybe

Surviving the Sci-Fi Horror of Mothership, Maybe

Mothership, by Tuesday Night Games and written by Sean McCoy, started making the rounds in beta format in 2018, causing quite a big splash amongst the RPG community. Styled as sci-fi horror RPG, its tag is: “Survive. Solve. Save. Pick one.” In other words, watch out.

Mothership falls into the OSR-style of game. OSR, which stands for Old School Revival or Old School Renaissance. OSR RPGs take their cues from the earliest days of the hobby, often with a focus on play style and use of Open Gaming License (OGL). In my mind, the former is the more important. OSR games are often as much about player skill as they are about rolling dice. The classic difference in this is that players often say, “Check for traps” before entering a room. The player then rolls an Awareness skill or like check. If they pass, they confirm the presence of traps or not. This is very mechanical.

OSR style play will ask the player to describe how they are checking for traps, and rather than relying on a detailed set of rules, the GM will “simply” establish the check. This “rulings over rules” is another hallmark of OSR games.

Interestingly, while characters are a big focus in modern RPGs (something I wholeheartedly endorse), OSR games often find ways for the players to engage in the game through the character in more meaningful ways because they eschew the “check x, roll y” mechanical formula.

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Twilight: 2000 — Roleplaying in a Post-Nuclear Holocaust World

Twilight: 2000 — Roleplaying in a Post-Nuclear Holocaust World

Nostalgia: noun — a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.

Dictionary.com

I have heard about a phenomenon in film making that when the decision makers and creators get into places of power (usually in their 40s and 50s), the public often sees an uptick in nostalgic films about the creator’s formative years. A cycle that repeats itself not unlike the cycle for fashions coming back in style (though, mercifully, some fashions remain purely historical). TV and film reboots are often the result of this nostalgia as well.

RPGs have reached the age where nostalgia is becoming more apparent — at least it is to this long-time RPGer. While Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, and a few other games have had an ongoing existence through multiple editions from the late 70s and early 80s, many games have come and gone.

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Coriolis: Navigating the Third Horizon

Coriolis: Navigating the Third Horizon

The “Preface” to the 2018 science fiction roleplaying game Coriolis: The Third Horizon mentions the game’s major influences: Middle Eastern culture, Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds, and Michael Flynn. Shortly after that, the writers state that Coriolis is Arabian Nights in space — an accurate self-assessment and pretty much hitting all the right notes for me. Grand science fiction space opera set in a universe that differs in meaningful and substantial ways.

Coriolis takes place in a setting called the Third Horizon. At one point in time far in the past, humanity discovered giant portals to other star systems, which had habitable planets. They colonized these systems, which became known as the First Horizon. The origin of the portals remain a mystery. Eventually, a second wave of systems were discovered via more portals and colonized: the Second Horizon.

The Third Horizon was discovered later and its 36 systems were colonized. What is known as the Portal Wars took place — a bloody, protracted, and devastating war that ended with the closing off of the portal between the Third Horizon and the first two. A long dark age ensued after the end of the war.

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